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Authors: Christine Wicker

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BOOK: Lily Dale
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“You little adult,” he snarled.

Some years later, a neighbor told my mother that I'd been born an old lady. “Old soul” sounds much nicer than “old lady.” Maybe I was coming up in the world.

I waited patiently as Hilda told me all she wanted to tell. When she began to repeat herself, I posed the one question that really intrigued me. Why did she doubt the mediums? I had not asked earlier because I didn't want to scare her into thinking that I was in Lily Dale for only the dirt. I wasn't. The dirt hardly interested me at all. That was easy prey. I could catch the dirt anytime. No. I was interested in her doubts because none of Hilda's certainties convinced me.

That's always the case. When religious people tell me that they know, absolutely know the truth, I am never assured that they are telling the truth. They are showing me their public face. What convinces is the other face, the one that can only be glimpsed. When their eyes shift, when doubt widens their countenance into blank confusion and they fumble because words come hard, I know I've hit the right spot. This is what they worry about in the dead of night, when the sureties everyone believes seem far away and they are left with only their own thoughts. The questions they pose to themselves then, and how they answer them, are the heart of faith. When I see that look, I become very still and careful, as watchful as the voyeur standing outside the barn, peering between the slats.

During one interview, a medium smiled placidly as she told me about healing and love and the power of spirit. She said that she believed in what I was doing. I thought that was taking a big risk considering that nobody ever knows what a journalist is really doing. But I listened until she ran down, and then I figured,
If she says she trusts me, let's see how much.

“Okay,” I said, “so tell me the truth. What's going on here? What are you doing?”

She looked away, laughed a little, and then she looked back at me with a half-smile. “I don't know,” she said. “I don't think anybody does. If you ever tell anybody I said that, I'll deny it.”

Then she got up from her chair saying, “Let me show you something,” and went to the back of her house. She returned with
a letter. It was from a mother who had called the medium wanting information about her dead son. The mother sent a picture of a group with several males.

“Tell me what you can,” she asked the medium.

“I was able to say which one was her son and how he died,” said the medium. “I don't know how I knew. I told her that he was moving away from her because he needed to go on with his life on the other side, and she needed to go on with her life too.

“I was right. That was what she wanted to know, but she hadn't told me. She didn't feel his presence anymore, and she was frantic to know why.”

The medium shook her head. “I don't understand it. I don't think anybody does. But you tell me. Is that real?”

Everything she told the mother might be coincidence and good guesses, but the medium's doubt made me think that whatever her gifts might be, she was groping in the dark like the rest of us.

I had misjudged Hilda, however. I didn't need to be cagey with her. She was old enough to say whatever she wanted, anytime she wanted, and she did. “I saw one of those mediums in church this morning. They pay her forty dollars an hour. I wouldn't give her fifteen cents,” she said.

Her doubts about Lily Dale's present-day mediums stemmed partly from her sister Julia, whom she called a born medium. Julia didn't have to take lessons or be coached, as modern mediums are, Hilda said. She didn't have to fish around for information or come out with vague clues.

“These mediums today tell people they've got some spirit who's a little round woman with gray hair. What good is that? I want names,” Hilda said. “Mediums like Jack Kelly gave names of spirits. You didn't have to guess who the spirit was. You knew.”

 

J
ack Kelly, who lived on Second Street in Lily Dale, was Mae West's favorite medium. A flashy little guy who drank a bit and sometimes chased women, his picture in the Assembly Hall shows him wearing an ascot and smiling in a roguish kind of way. Jack was quite the man. In those days mediums did elaborate performances during Spiritualist services. They called it platform work, and it drew big crowds.

Kelly would put himself into trance by thumping his head against the wall. His guide, the spirit that gives mediums information, could be heard as an unintelligible, high-pitched whining that would continue throughout Kelly's performance. Born in Wales and once a coal miner, Kelly told people he couldn't read and write as a boy and that spirit had taught him.

When he did billet reading, another Lily Dale medium, Ray Torrey, would tie a blindfold over Jack's eyes. Jack would always say, “Tie it tighter.” Ray, a big man, would wrench it around until he thought Jack's head was going to burst, and Jack would say, “Tighter.”

Kelly would often increase the drama by singling out members of the audience and saying, “Stop scratching your nose,” or “Quit pulling your ear.” After each answer, Kelly would crumple the billet into a wad and toss it into a wastebasket that assistants moved to different locations during his performance. He never missed.

During World War II, when a young girl asked whether her soldier cousin who was missing in action would be returning, the blindfolded medium strode to the back of the room, turned out the lights, and said in a thundering voice, “Gordon is home.” Months later they received word that the soldier had died at the Battle of the Bulge.

Jack was so fond of blindfolds that he once drove from Buffalo to Lily Dale wearing one, claiming that the spirits would guide the car. The highway patrolman who stopped him was less than impressed and would have hauled Jack to jail, but the medium so astounded the cop with all he knew about the man's dead relatives that the officer let him go. Or so the story is told.

During his platform performances Jack stuck hatpins all over his forehead. He stuck them so far in that when he walked around the platform they would bob and wave before him. Burly farmers would try to pull them out, but nobody could. When Jack finally plucked the hatpins from his forehead, there wasn't a spot of blood on his face.

Stories of Jack's wonderful feats were always increasing. In the early fifties, a woman from Pittsford, New York, told the Dunkirk newspaper that he cured her of blindness.

Mae West, who depended on Jack for career guidance and who knows what else, once chased him all the way from California to Lily Dale. Mae's bodyguards were gorgeous, remembered Betty Schultz, who saw them. Jack often entertained Mae's friends at parties in Santa Monica while Mae sat to the side dressed in an elegant, floor-length gown. It was said that a five-carat diamond ring he wore was a gift from her. Jack died well before Mae did, but that didn't end their story.

In 1974, ten years after his death, Mae settled down to watch television in her Hollywood apartment one evening. While waiting for the television to warm up, she heard a deep voice. It was as though someone was trying to say something but couldn't get the words out, Mae told an interviewer. She looked toward the other end of the couch and saw two feet in men's shoes.

Then trousers appeared, and, finally, Jack Kelly, clad in full-dress white tie, looking about thirty years old. He was completely solid, she told the interviewer.

West yelled for her bodyguard, who was in the other room, and the apparition began to disappear. “He dissolved right before my eyes, down through the couch, and was gone,” Mae told a reporter. The bodyguard, shouting, “What happened?” ran into the room, but only Mae was on the couch.

 

I
asked Hilda, why aren't the mediums of today able to do what the old-timers did?

“It's the money,” she said. “These mediums charge too much money, and that's why they don't have the power mediums once did.” Hilda can remember when mediums left a basket by the door for donations and didn't name a fee. She can well remember when five dollars was considered plenty. Now mediums charge forty to seventy-five dollars for a half-hour of time.

I asked Hilda whether anybody in Lily Dale was a born medium.

“I don't want to say anything against any of them,” she said. “They're good people.”

But was there one whom she could absolutely vouch for?

“Anne Gehman,” she said. “She's a born medium.”

Then Hilda shook her head and looked worried. “I don't know for sure, because Anne's had several husbands, and you'd think that if she was a true medium she wouldn't have so much trouble. She also said that Gerald Ford was going to win another term, and he didn't.”

But one of the husbands died. Anne couldn't be held accountable for that, and, as for the wrong predictions, nobody's right all the time. Even Hilda doesn't expect that. Anne, who lived in Washington, D.C., and was married to a Georgetown University professor, spent part of her summers in a big pink and white cottage that faces the lake. She helped catch serial killer Ted Bundy and had some of the most powerful people in Washington as her clients, Hilda said.

Before I left, the old lady gave me a piece of advice.

“Learn everything you can while you're on the earth plane,” she said, “and remember this: you take your bundle with you. Everything you learn here goes into the next world for you to use.”

I'm convinced that we believe certain things about religion because they seem right. Some people call that a knowing. Some people call it resonance. Some people call it God talking. Whatever it is, that feeling is what really communicates to us, and we find ourselves thinking,
That's right. I believe that.

When Hilda said we take our bundle with us, I thought,
That's right. I believe that.
And her words shifted something in me. I quoted them many times to other people who never failed to nod and say, “Ummm,” as though I'd just imparted some great notion. I didn't realize that Hilda's words weren't as magical to everyone as they were to me until I repeated them to one rather blunt friend, who nodded, said, “Ummm,” and then demanded, “What does that mean?” Probably everyone else was thinking that also and was too nice to say so.

To me, Hilda's words meant I could stop thinking I was accomplishing too little too late. They relieved me of the terrible envy one feels when someone younger does something marvelous. They gave me a sense that my life made sense and counted for something. Were her words true? I don't know, but they helped me. I might have used that piece of wisdom as a pointer to indicate that Lily Dale had lessons of a spiritual nature to teach me, but I didn't. It took me a long time to take Lily Dale seriously enough to learn from it.

Even so, I liked Hilda's idea so well that I even quoted it to Betty Schultz.

Betty had a more casual attitude about how much knowledge a person needs. “You want to know enough to say, ‘Oh, I'm dead. I want to go up,'” she said.

T
he main question I wanted answered—how do beliefs change lives?—would seem easy to answer. Since people of Lily Dale believe “there is no death and there are no dead,” they ought to feel less grief than the rest of us. If death is just passing over to another life, they ought to have no fear of death themselves.

I saw little evidence that Spiritualists walked toward death any more happily than the rest of us. They'd had no suicide cults, no laced Kool-Aid parties. I heard of no great mediums who voluntarily passed over in order to use their ability on the other side for the benefit of humankind. Several did claim to feel great peace and to have no fear of death. Medium Sherry Lee Calkins mentioned that the angel of death is not the grim fellow most people imagine him to be. “I consider the angel of death to be a birthday boy or birthday girl as the case may be,” she said. “He's a friend.”

In Lily Dale the past is quite alive. Close enough to touch, they say. Lily Dale residents regularly report seeing wraiths strolling the streets dressed in Victorian-era clothes. Native American braves often pad single file by the edge of the lake with tomahawks in hand, according to more than one living resident. Relatives often cross from the other side to speak, to move things about, to show themselves in various locations.

Yes, folks in Lily Dale frequently see the dead and hear them, they say. But grief, well, that's a strong emotion, hard to conquer. Visions and voices are nice, considerable comfort, but they're not warm bodies.

Lily Dale resident Bonnie Mikula, as stout a believer as anyone I met, told me of grief so crushing that it almost drove her crazy. Every night her sobs were so loud that her daughter slept with the radio on to drown out the sounds. During the day Bonnie was so lost and angry that the two fought constantly. A little red-haired nurse and single mother who specialized in survival, Bonnie could not accept the injustice of losing her longtime lover, Chapman Clark.

Chapman, the only brother of Sherry Lee Calkins and Gretchen Clark Lazarony, was not a medium, as his sisters were. He was a healer. He had often healed Bonnie's headaches with a touch. And every night when they were apart, he dropped in for telepathic chats at 10:00
P.M
., she told me. Bonnie knew he was terribly ill in the weeks before he died, but he promised that he would never leave her, and she believed him. She thought that man could do anything.

He was found one balmy April afternoon lying in the grass, his lawn mower beside him, his glasses folded next to him, his arms crossed over his chest. It was as though Chapman Clark, fifty-five, a healthy-looking, handsome bear of a man, decided one lovely afternoon that the time had come to quit mowing and die. So he made himself comfortable, arranged himself presentably, and did just that.

“Chapman was always in control,” said his friend Shelley Takei, who told me that version of his death.

But in Lily Dale, where
dead
and
gone
are words never used together, that wasn't the end of the story. Soon after his demise, her brother assured her that he hadn't been preparing to die, said Sherry Lee. In fact, he hadn't felt a thing that day. He was dead
before he hit the ground. He also told her that the lesion in his brain hadn't killed him. That was important to Sherry Lee, since she and Gretchen had done a healing on Chapman to shrink the tumor. They'd gone inside his brain and worked a bit of magic, according to Lily Dale lore.

Chapman had also come back to comfort Bonnie, she told me, but it hadn't helped. She shouted at him that he needed to stay away. His presence only made things worse. “There he was having a great time, and I was left behind,” she said.

Bonnie and his sister weren't the only persons who testified that Chapman had returned. He hadn't been dead a week before he was tramping around Betty Schultz's house, exciting her dog, disrupting the old lady's rest, and causing the kind of commotion that Betty would never have tolerated from Chapman when he was alive. The next day Betty paid a visit to Sherry Lee.

“Chap showed up,” she said in her customarily abrupt way. “What's this about a pig?” It seems Chapman was holding a ceramic pig when he appeared at Betty's house. It's well known in Lily Dale that spirits often bring some token to identify themselves in case the living don't believe they're who they claim to be. Of course, Betty had known Chap most of his life, did recognize him, and didn't doubt him for a minute. Nevertheless, the pig was a nice touch, Sherry Lee thought.

The sisters buried Chap in Mr. Piggy, an old, chipped, faded cookie jar that they had fought over as children. One of them had taken it for her own after their mother died, but Chap loved it, and since he was the first to go, they gave it to him. They cremated him. Burying a body six feet under might keep a spirit earthbound, according to some Spiritualist thinking, and Chap, a bachelor all his life, was a man who loved his freedom. So the sisters cast two-thirds of their only brother's ashes to the winds and buried the rest in the cookie jar.

At the funeral, Bonnie and the Clark sisters stood around the little hole in the ground with a bottle of Glenlivet—another nice touch, since Chapman had loved his scotch. The sisters poured a little scotch on the grave, and then each grieving woman took a swig herself. They handed the gravedigger the rest of the bottle. He tipped it up, swigged, and said, “Damn, that's good stuff.”

Chapman appeared to Sherry Lee several times afterward. In her accounts of those visits, his behavior seemed decidedly strange to me, although it made perfect sense to his eldest sister. Once he came holding a buttercup under his chin. As he twirled it, he chanted, “Butter, butter, who doesn't like butter?” Sherry Lee called her daughter with the exciting news. The girl hoped to buy a farm near Buffalo but hadn't been able to afford anything she liked. Sherry Lee said Chapman was returning to let her know that she would find a house and it would have buttercups around it. Soon thereafter her daughter did indeed find such a house.

 

O
ne longtime believer in spirit communication said of an aunt who had died two weeks earlier, “It's about time she checked in.” Shortly thereafter the aunt did make contact, but not in the form anyone expected. She left her name on the caller ID of a telephone, according to the story. Spirit methods are infinitely varied, say Spiritualist accounts. They often flicker lights or appear as a smell associated with the loved one. Sometimes they manifest as nothing more than a feeling.

Kent Bentkowski's father contacted him via telephone. The two had not spoken for six years before the father's death. After his father's passing, Kent's telephone began to ring at all hours of the day and night. When he or his wife, Paula, answered, there was no sound on the line. The calls continued—sometimes five and six times a day, sometimes only once a day—for six months, until
finally Paula said, “I know who it is. It's your father. So just say, ‘What do you want?'”

Kent was too frightened by the thought to say anything during the next few calls, but finally he picked up the phone and said, “Hi, Dad. I know it's you. What do you want?”

A voice that Kent said sounded exactly like his father's said, “I'm sorry.”

Kent said he then called the operator, explained what had happened, and asked where the call had come from. After checking, she replied, “Mr. Bentkowski, I don't know how to tell you this, but no one has called your line since yesterday.”

One medium believed her late husband was in her hotel room after she rose in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. She sat on the commode, but the seat had been left up, and just as she dropped into the water she heard a loud laugh echoing off the tiled walls. It was her husband's inimitable guffaw. She would have known it anywhere.

Martie Hughes, like many mediums, sees spirits only in her mind's eye, and she's not eager for them to appear in any other way. “It would scare the poop out of me,” she said. On occasions when she is alone and believes a spirit might be hovering around, she closes her eyes tightly. “I don't want to see them,” she said. When I asked why, her answer was similar to those I received from many mediums as I probed for details on life with the spirits.

She embarked on a long explanation about the difference in vibrations. She feels different vibrations when working with a client than when receiving her own visions. The time an angel sat on the edge of her bed was a different vibration than the time she awoke at 4:30
A.M
. knowing she had to go to another town to visit her friend who was at the moment thinking of suicide.

What exactly is a vibration?

“Energy. Energy is made up of vibrations,” she said and began another long explanation. I interrupted her.

Why is it so hard to get Spiritualists to describe their reality in ways that nonmediumistic people can relate to?

“It's like asking someone from Sweden how it's different to speak Swedish,” she replied.

Mary Ann Spears, the North Carolina psychotherapist who sees the dead relatives of her clients, said she doesn't even try explaining. “You need to talk with like-minded people,” she said. “I'm not going to try to explain this to anybody who doesn't understand it.”

Mary Ann's mediumistic specialty developed one day during an ordinary psychotherapy session. She was listening to a client who was ashen-faced with grief, weeping, bent over in his chair, hardly able to talk, when beside him appeared an apparition.

“There was his radiant daughter standing there, gesturing, saying, ‘Tell him. Tell him I'm here,'” Mary Ann said.

His daughter had died three years earlier when a truck hit her in New York City. The driver was never found. The father could not stop blaming himself.

Mary Ann wondered,
Should I tell him? Would it be malfeasance? Would it help or hurt if I mentioned that I see his daughter?
She didn't know. So she asked him whether he believed in everlasting life. When he said he did, she told him that his daughter was standing beside him.

“I described her down to what she was wearing and her tiny beautiful face,” Mary Ann said. “I never did know whether he believed me.”

Since then, she said, lots of dead people have appeared next to her grieving clients. They always bring the same message: “Tell him (or her) I'm alive.” They wave their arms, shout in exasperation, jump up and down. They bring objects and animals to prove who they are. It can be most distracting, she said.

The spirits don't return because they worry about the sorrow their relatives feel, said Mary Ann. “They don't think like that. They're spirit. They see there's a problem, and they know that the way to solve it is to let people know they aren't dead. So they do.”

When living people tell Mary Ann they are afraid to be buried or fearful about being burned during cremation, she feels amazed, dismayed, and somewhat alienated, as though she were on the outside looking in. They completely misunderstand, she said.

“You're wearing a suit of clothes and you step out of them,” she said. “You're still you. You just leave this suit of clothes behind. You're fully conscious, but the body doesn't mean anything to you anymore.”

 

S
piritualists often talk of spirits who keep them company over many years. At the house with a little sign that reads, R
AYMOND
T
ORREY MEDIUM
, an old man often sits in the front room that serves as his office and medium's parlor. Around his head white hair fans out in a glinting halo, lit by sun that shafts through the dusty window. Ray was once known throughout America's Spiritualist community as the singing medium because he always sang at services. Customers come less often now that he is in his nineties. That's all right in a way. Solitude gives him more time to talk with his baby daughter who died sixty years ago.

Ray has a son in his twenties, but it's still the long-gone daughter who comforts him most. He watched her grow up in the spirit world until she reached a pretty thirty-five years old, when, right in accordance with some Spiritualists' thought, she stopped aging. There's difference of opinion over what age spirit bodies assume after they pass over. Many Spiritualists say thirty-five is the perfect age when physical form and maturity come together most harmoniously, and so spirit entities take that age. Others say spirits become the age when they were happiest.

When spirits appear to their loved ones, however, they often manifest at the age when they died in order to be recognized, the mediums say. There seems to be agreement on the fact that babies who die do grow up. So Ray expected to see his daughter move through childhood into her adult years, and that is what he saw, he said.

Some days she's the only one who seems to understand him, he told me sadly.

Medium Greg Kehn once comforted a client by telling her that the loneliness so many people suffer from is an illusion. “If they could see what I see, they would know that they are never alone. Spirits are all around them,” he said.

That idea causes some people to worry about privacy, a concern the mediums wave away. “The spirits aren't watching you do embarrassing things. They're on a different plane,” they say. That may be, but when Martie Hughes smelled cherry pipe tobacco and received the impression that a sea captain who had gone to spirit was roaming about her house, she immediately laid down some rules.

The first was that he was not to appear before her physical eyes. “When I open my eyes, I do not want to see you standing there,” she said. And the second rule was, “The bathroom is off limits.”

“I did not want him to see me naked,” she said.

 

S
ome of the mediums looked at me somberly and said, “This is going to be a spiritual journey for you.” I was polite about that, but I didn't think so. They also told me that I had psychic ability. They tell a lot of people that.

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